Northwestern is in desperation mode.
Sitting at 0-2 after two disappointing losses, the Wildcats are seeking answers. There are big questions about the program to answer — coaches are not safe for sure. Positions once safe are not — Clayton Thorson does not look so shiny as starting quarterback. And the program’s supposed strengths are getting laid bare and thin — injuries to the secondary especially are concerning.
Northwestern is in an early must-win game. Even with the win, the Wildcats will have to go 5-4 in the Big Ten to reach bowl eligibility. And the Wildcats play Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa all on the road in October.
Things are not looking sunny in Evanston. A season of optimism and a season continuing to build after a breakthrough 10-win season has quickly turned to panic. The Wildcats are searching for anything positive to hold onto, get the winless streak off their back and just move forward.
Instead, all that is left through two weeks of the season is questions. Questions that demand answering before a brutal start to the Big Ten season begins.
1 Burning Question: Can the offensive line block
Northwestern’s problems start at the most fundamental levels. Quite simply, the offensive line is not protecting Clayton Thorson and giving him time to throw and not creating running lanes for Justin Jackson.
Illinois State — yes, FCS Illinois State — successfully blew up any plans Northwestern had by getting into the backfield constantly to harass and flush out Thorson. And Justin Jackson carried the ball only 12 times as Northwestern admitted it abandoned the run because of its ineffectiveness.
This was against a FCS team. Duke is not exactly a stellar defense. But the Blue Devils are certainly a step up. The Blue Devils have played good defense in their first two games, although it includes a 10-point home loss to lowly Wake Forest.
Duke has nine sacks already this season and the defense has stood tall. That does not bode well for an offensive line that is struggling in every front. Both Western Michigan and Illinois State made a living in Northwestern’s backfield.
This game will be played and won in the trenches.
2 Key Stats
—41: Clayton Thorson threw a career-high 41 pass attempts in last week’s loss to Illinois State. He completed just 17 of them. It is unclear what was more alarming for Northwestern. The fact Thorson had to throw the ball 41 times against Illinois State or that he only completed 17 passes and looked completely out of sync. Northwestern will have to get better balance and more efficiency from Thorson.
—452.0: Duke’s offense is without Thomas Sirk, out for the year with an Achille injury, but the offense appears still to be producing. The Blue Devils are averaging 452.0 yards per game with a relatively balanced. That includes 369 yards against Wake Forest in a loss. Duke can pick up yards and Northwestern is undermanned with Kyle Queiro and Matthew Williams out for a struggling, but talented secondary.
3 Key Players
Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB: It goes without saying Northwestern needs Justin Jackson. There simply cannot be a repeat of his 12-carry, 42-yard performance against Illinois State. The Wildcats need him to produce more yards and to give him the ball more. He should be ready to play after spraining his ankle late in the Illinois State game. If Northwestern wants to have any success offensively, it needs balance and it needs to feature Jackson.
Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern LB: It is easy to cop out and pick Northwestern’s two stars as the players to watch (as I have done here). But the truth is, the Wildcats need their two biggest players to step up. Anthony Walker Jr. has not quite been “The Franchise” in the first two games. He has just 14 tackles in two games. He would get that in individual games last year. Walker has misdiagnosed and overran plays too. The Wildcats need their top linebacker to step up and put up star numbers.
Johnathan Lloyd, Duke WR: Northwestern’s pass defense is going to be down some key players. Matthew Harris is out with a concussion. And safety Kyle Queiro will also miss the game. That leaves the unproven Montre Hartage and freshman Trae Williams with Parker Westphal likely filling in at safety for Queiro. That gives Lloyd a big opportunity. He has 129 yards on 10 receptions in two games. Northwestern pass defense was already struggling. This could be the death knell.
4 Bold Prognostications
—Justin Jackson will return to his running ways: Northwestern will not ignore Justin Jackson a second week in a row. The Wildcats will give him the ball more often than not and look to control the time of possession, something they have not been able to do the last two weeks. Jackson has to be involved nad has to produce for Northwestern to win.
—Clayton Thorson will pass better than 50 percent: If Jackson can play at a higher level, then Thorson will return to being at least nominally efficient. Thorson does not have to do much. He just has to manage the game and make plays when asked of him. Relieving the pressure with a strong running game will help. But Thorson has to be patient with the time he has.
—The secondary will get a pick: That does not mean Northwestern’s defense or secondary will have an easy day. But Northwestern has done a very good job recruiting in the secondary. This game will truly test the Wildcats’ depth. They will have their moments where they step up. And it should include at least one turnover in their favor.
—Both teams may embarrass themselves: This is not a classic battle of power-five elites. Duke and Northwestern do not have the best history to stand on. And both, once promising programs a few years ago, are not at their best right now. The Wildcats’ two losses were not the strongest losses a program could have. And Duke is not feeling great following a loss to Wake Forest at home. Both teams’ bowl bids this year are not on strong footing. There could be some incredibad football here.
5 Staff Predictions
Andy: Duke 38-24
Dave: Northwestern 21-17
Phil H.: Duke 20-13
Philip R-R: Duke 10-7
Zach: Northwestern 24-17